Associated Press

Jazz’s Alec Burks getting back to his dynamic ways

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Utah Jazz wing Alec Burks is nearly healthy after two-plus years of injuries and he has started to look like the player Utah signed to a four-year, $42 million extension in 2014.

Burks has scored in double digits in five straight games, including a season-high 15 Saturday against the Grizzlies. He’s shown flashes of that unique athletic ability around the rim and shot an efficient 60.5 percent during this stretch.

To the delight of coach Quin Snyder, Burks has also played well on the defensive end and is being used in a three-wing lineup without a point guard.

“It’s a different lineup,” Snyder said Monday. “I like the efficiency. What Alec does for us, he comes in and gives us a boost off the bench. I think he’s done a very good job defending the ball. That’s also a point of emphasis. If we can defend the ball with his size and athleticism, that can be a strength and an important thing for us.”

It’s taken a while for Burks to get back to this point.

Burks missed 50 games with a fractured left fibula last season and returned, possibly too early, to play three of the final four games of the 2015-16 season. He then missed the first 34 games of this season dealing with ankle issues, including arthroscopic surgery and rehab from left ankle debridement.

Snyder and Burks said it’s just a matter of time before he’s fully back from the ankle surgery in November. Now he needs on-court time to get his timing back and to get used to teammates who joined the franchise during the summer. The team even assigned him to the D-League Salt Lake City Stars for a practice and game.

“I think I’m taking a step every game,” Burks said. “I don’t think I’m all the way back yet to where I was preinjury. But that’s a long process and I’ll get there. I’m making some passes I’m not used to making. Turnovers. Just the overall comfort with my teammates, chemistry because you know we’ve got new teammates. … It’s great. With the type of injury I had, you never know if you’re going to be back to who you were before the injury. It’s great to see that I’m close to where I was.”

Burks said that’s why it took him so long to return. He’s an above-the-rim player near the basket and they wanted to make sure the leg was stable after missing those 50 games last season.

Those flashy midair moments are what let everyone know Burks is nearly back to his normal self, but those moments can also get him in trouble with turnovers or bad shot attempts.

“Sometimes when he’s under control, he doesn’t look it because he’s so dynamic,” Snyder said. “There’s no question there’s been times where we’d like the degree of difficulty to be a little bit less with some of the things he does. But he is who he is, too, and he’s effective.

“You don’t want to change something that’s a strength. You want to kind of mold it and modify it. I think he’s continuing to understand how he can best be effective.”

Burks laughed when asked about that unique style of play. He acknowledged he’s still working off some rust and said he’ll improve from a five-turnover game in the loss to the Grizzlies on Saturday.

“(General manager) Dennis (Lindsey), Quin, everybody’s on me about my finishing,” Burks said. “But that’s what everybody likes me doing. I’m trying to simplify as much as I can, but I just react off of instinct.”

On the other end of the spectrum, the Jazz continue to work on Derrick Favors‘ health. He missed 13 games with a left knee bone contusion in November and December and hasn’t shown the light-footed athleticism that made him one of the league’s better big men last season. The Jazz held Favors out to rest Saturday and he didn’t participate in the contact portion of practice Monday.

Snyder didn’t know if Favors would ever be completely healthy this season.

“It’s hard to define 100 percent,” Snyder said. “I’m not 100 percent of what I was. He’s approaching that, absolutely. It’s just a process for him. A lot of that just comes through having a chance to be out there and be healthy and continue to play. Even though you physically feel great, now you’re kind of weaving in the skills and the timing and all those things. My hope is yes, and he’s pretty close right now.”

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience. After the game he said this.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.

Rudy Gobert leaves game vs. Celtics with likely knee sprain. Again.

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Rudy Gobert missed 11 games this season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While the Jazz defense suffered as should have been expected with their anchor gone, their offense found a groove without him — and with more Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors — resulting in Utah going 7-4 with their star center out.

Now the Jazz will be without him again for a while — he seems to have sprained his left knee just minutes into Friday night’s game against the Celtics when Favors fell back into him. That is the same knee he injured before. Gobert was forced to leave and will not return to the game.

If that diagnosis holds, it will be weeks again the Jazz will be without Gobert.

The Jazz know how to play without Gobert. Favors moves to center and while he’s not near the same defender his offensive skills got them buckets and opened up the floor. The rookie Mitchell, as well as Ricky Rubio at points, took advantage of it to give the Jazz a top-10 offense with Gobert out. They need to find that groove again.

Still, Utah needs Gobert back and himself to really reach the heights they are capable of.

Veteran NBA official Monty McCutchen to be head of referee development, training

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After 25 seasons running up and down the NBA hardwood and refereeing more than 1,400 games, NBA official Monty McCutchen got a promotion.

He officiated his last game Thursday night in Minnesota and will move to a desk at the league office where his new title is Vice President, Head of Referee Development and Training.

“Monty has earned the respect of players, coaches and his peers during an exemplary career as an NBA official,” said Senior Vice President, Head of Referee Operations Michelle D. Johnson (who started on the job in October).  “He understands as well as anyone what it takes to be an outstanding referee and how the league can best support its officials.  With his wealth of insight and experience, Monty is uniquely suited for a leadership role in our officiating program.”

“I’m excited for the opportunity to channel my passion for the officiating profession in a new way,” McCutchen said.  “While I’ll miss officiating games, I’m grateful to continue working with our incredibly talented referee staff as part of an organization so dedicated to excellence and innovation.”

Despite what some fans like to blast on Twitter (especially during the playoffs), NBA officials are the best trained and flat-out best basketball referees in the world (if you don’t think so, watch the college/scab referees from the last lockout of the refs, it was painful). Could they improve? Sure. Hopefully, McCutchen can help do that in his new position.